BWW Reviews: SCR's Acclaimed Jitney Comes to the Pasadena Playhouse
Jitney is the eighth play in August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle and recently completed a critically acclaimed run at SCR (South Coast Rep) in Orange County. It has now transferred to the Pasadena Playhouse through July 15 and certainly stands tall as one of Wilson's earliest and best kitchen sink dramas. The production has sensational acting and direction by Ron OJ Parson and balances enough humor with the heartache of real life to make it thoroughly absorbing and entertaining fare.
Taking place in 1977 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a shabby gypsy cab service waiting room, there is enough hubbub created by the quick entrances and exits of its nine characters, to resemble the hustling and bustling of a small hotel lobby. Varying types of men hang around daily to shoot the breeze as they wait for the phone to ring for business pickups. The owner Becker (Charlie Robinson) is old-world and sticks to the rules, which are clearly displayed on the wall, yet broken as much as obeyed. Turnbo (Ellis E. Williams) has diarrhea of the mouth and says more than he should ...always, Fielding (David McKnight) drinks on the job despite constant warnings from Becker and Shealy (Roland Boyce) uses the phone to run the numbers game when Becker is not there. His fancy suits testify as to just how much money he's taking in. These three characters provide much comic relief in the play. The central drama lies with Becker's son Booster (Montae Russell) who is released from the pen after serving twenty years for murder. Booster and Becker obviously did not see eye to eye then and still do not get alonG. Becker blames Booster's evil ways for the early death of Booster's mother. There is another clash with Youngblood/Darnell (Larry Bates) and his wife Rena (Kristy Johnson) - the only female in the play - because rumor has it he's cheating on her with her sister Peaches, leaving her to scrape in order to feed their young son. Becker and Booster bicker as do Darnell and Rena, as does Turnbo with just about everyone, and life goes on, live and let live.
The acting is superb from the entire ensemble. Russell and Robinson exercise such great control and Williams and McKnight steal just about every scene they're in. Kudos also to James A. Watson, Jr. as quiet, straight-laced Doub and to Gregg Daniel who has two small memorable scenes - especially a drunken one - as chauffeur Philmore. Shaun Motley has designed a company room whose antiquated ambiance you can almost smell. Parson has directed his cast with the utmost skill and fast but believable pacing throughout.
August Wilson is one of our greatest playwrights, second only to Eugene O' Neill. He has captured the African American experience through the decades better than any other writer. Jitney, nickname for the gypsy cab service, is one of his finest, most riveting and most universal works. At some point in time we have come across most, if not all of these characters; regardless of race or skin color, we know them as we do members of our very own extended family.